x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Zimbabwe losing its best brains

The exodus is made easier after South Africa's recent decision to loosen visa requirements.

Two Zimbabweans seek shelter at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg.
Two Zimbabweans seek shelter at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE // No 7 Elcombe Street, which houses the South African Embassy in the leafy Belgravia suburb, was, until May 1, the busiest diplomatic address in Harare. Hundreds of Zimbabweans packed the embassy each week, applying for visas to travel to South Africa for shopping or to search for jobs. They were joined by armies of vendors selling food and enterprising touts, whose job was to wake at the crack of dawn and secure places at the front of the queue, later selling the places to genuine applicants for travel permits.

Since South Africa eased its visa requirements of Zimbabweans, however, the embassy no longer bustles with excitement. The activity has drifted 500km south to the Beitbridge border post, the gateway to South Africa, where Zimbabweans can now get a free 90-day visitor's permit. Previously they had to apply at the embassy, back their application with travellers' cheques worth 2,000 South African rand (Dh885) and then wait two weeks to hear if they were successful.

Zimbabweans now have three months to find legal work and the option to extend their stay to six months. On a recent Friday, the three-kilometre stretch of road leading to the Beitbridge border post resembled a car park as vehicles inched forward. Nyasha Ngwerume, 30, a civil engineer, was one of the hundreds queuing on his way to South Africa to look for work. "It was unnecessary for South Africa to maintain visa restrictions on us when we allow its nationals free movement into our country. I am hoping for the best in South Africa," he said.

Analysts estimate that 3.5 million Zimbabweans have fled the economic and political crises at home, and settled in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, among other countries, as political or economic refugees. Of these, around one million are believed to be in South Africa. "I just want to get the job for which I am trained, earn a fair salary and lead a decent life. An economist like me earns three times more in South Africa than I do here, and for that it is irresistible," said Joey Munda, 28.

Davies Ndumiso Sibanda, head of the Bulawayo-based Stratways Labour Consultants, said unskilled workers are likely to remain behind because the salaries they are now earning in a stabilising economy, though still low, negate the option of finding work in South Africa. "For the common worker, the salary he earns here is comparable with what he can get in South Africa," Mr Sibanda said. "However, we forecast an exodus of skilled professionals because of this new arrangement. Zimbabwean industry is still unable to match South Africa in terms of salaries and working conditions for skilled workers, so the motivation to go south remains or will in fact be enhanced seeing that the tough travel restrictions no longer apply."

Mr Sibanda lamented that a depleted skills base would further complicate Zimbabwe's economic recovery efforts. South Africa, the continent's biggest economy, has for many years recruited such professionals as engineers, doctors, IT specialists, journalists and teachers from its poorer neighbours. The recruitment has intensified in recent years as a construction boom before the 2010 Fifa World Cup, which South Africa will host, takes hold. The Democratic Alliance, South Africa's official opposition party, has criticised the visa waiver as "irresponsible" because it could increase unemployment and threaten the country's security.

"This is basically opening the gates for anyone to enter the country without any restrictions. It compromises security, passport holders and it has a direct impact on unemployment figures in South Africa," Athol Trollip, a Democratic Alliance official, recently told South Africa's Herald newspaper. Luxon Zembe, a former president of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, accused the South African government of opening its borders simply to get extra help to build its World Cup infrastructure.

He said that considering the operating difficulties they are facing, Zimbabwean employers could be more competitive in the labour market in the short term if they retrench secondary staff and retain those with core skills and pay them well. Employers and the government, he said, also need to invest in education and training to replenish lost labour. tmpofu@thenational.ae